A Guide to Articles in English Grammar
  • 3-minute read
  • 25th September 2022

A Guide to Articles in English Grammar

There are three articles in English: a, an, and the. Articles function as adjectives in the way that they modify nouns; but instead of doing so through a description, as most adjectives do, indefinite and definite articles help the reader or listener understand if the noun is general or specific. Read on for a deep look into articles and how to use them in your writing.

Indefinite Articles (a/an)

A and an are indefinite articles that refer to a singular general noun. You use a or an when you’re talking about a non-specific noun or introducing a noun for the first time.

Let’s go see a movie tonight.

The speaker used the article a because they would like to see any movie, rather than one specific movie they had in mind.

When the noun or adjective that comes after the article begins with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y) or a vowel sound (as in honest or hour), the article an should be used:

We’re going on an airplane.

His wedding is on an island.

When the noun or adjective that follows an indefinite article begins with a consonant (letters that are not vowels), use a:

I need a ladder to reach those books.

The police are looking for a man with a beard.

If you want to modify a noun with an adjective, place the adjective between the article and the noun:

She drives an electronic car.

There’s a huge garden behind the house.

Finally, a or an are used with singular nouns, so they can also indicate a single quantity of something:

I have a cat. (I have one cat.)

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We are leaving in an hour. (We are leaving in one hour.)

Definite Article (The)

The refers to a specific noun, and it can be used for both singular and plural nouns. As a definite article, the is used with a specific noun rather than as a generalization. In other words, it’s used when the reader or listener knows exactly what noun you’re talking about.

The bananas for the smoothie are on the table.

I saw the orange car drive by yesterday.

The brown chicken is harassing the others.

If the speaker were referring to any bananas, orange car, or brown chicken, they would use the indefinite article. The was used in these examples because the reader or listener knows the identity of the noun.

The should also be used when an adjective, phrase, or clause describing the noun identifies it.

I’ll take the biggest piece of pie.

When Not to Use Articles

Articles can be tricky when countable and uncountable nouns are thrown into the mix. As a rule, articles should not be used with uncountable nouns expressing generalizations:

The sugar tastes delicious on buttered toast.

Sugar tastes delicious on buttered toast. ✓

This statement refers to sugar in general, rather than a specific portion or type of sugar, so the definite and indefinite articles should be avoided.

Proofreading and Editing

Articles can be confusing to English learners, especially when trying to figure out when they are and aren’t necessary. If you want to ensure that you’ve used articles correctly in your writing, our team of expert editors can help you out with our proofreading and editing services. Send in a 500-word sample for free today!

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